Sat, May 31, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Military casualties outnumbered civilian toll in Iraq

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

All over Baghdad on walls of mosques or outside private homes, pieces of black cloth inscribed with yellow lettering bear witness to the thousands of Iraqis killed in the American-led war.

Only if they were officers do these notices make clear if the victims were soldiers or civilians. As far as Iraqis are concerned all the dead are "martyrs," whether they fell defending their country or were struck when missiles or cluster bombs hit their homes.

Iraqis are right not to make a distinction. In a war launched against their country illegally every casualty is an innocent who deserves equal mourning. Yet the few Western newspapers and human-rights groups who have begun to calculate the war's death toll focus on civilians.

The Web site -- www.iraqbodycount.net -- calculates the civilian toll as between 5,425 and 7,041. A Los Angeles Times survey of 27 hospital records in Baghdad and its outlying districts found 1,700 civilians died in this region.

The bias in these counts may be influenced by the trend of wars in the Balkans, Chechnya, and Africa where civilians were at greatest risk. Evidence from Iraq suggests this war was different.

The Los Angeles Times itself contacted four mosque-based burial societies which reported interring 600 bodies of civilians, and many more of soldiers. Haidar Tari, director of tracing missing persons for the Iraqi Red Crescent, estimated up to 3,000 such undocumented burials, perhaps two-thirds involving soldiers.

Interviews with officers and soldiers in Baghdad also suggest the military death toll exceeded the civilian. The imbalance was not as grotesque as in the first Gulf war when around 3,500 Iraqi civilians were killed, compared with 100,000 soldiers.

In this war no more than 10 percent died in most units. The resistance American and British forces met as they advanced into Iraq was mainly confined to the first week. After that men ran away in huge numbers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Adel Abdul Jabar commanded an air defense unit on the eastern approach to Baghdad.

"We had 250 men moving about in the area manning 57mm anti-aircraft guns. American planes were hitting us day and night. We shot down some cruise missiles and morale initially was high," he recalls.

After a missile scored a direct hit on an underground bunker killing four soldiers on March 24, three days into the war, many deserted. "We were down to 175 men out of 250 after a week," he says.

Shock

On April 4 a cluster bomb landed on part of the air defense force at Doura.

"It really frightened the men. A captain, a first lieutenant, and 19 soldiers were killed or wounded. You could not approach the injured because of the unexploded bombs lying on the ground. The wounded were dying where they were."

The shock caused a new exodus. By April 9 the unit only had 13 officers and one soldier, wounded in the arm. Over 80 percent had fled. Twenty-five, exactly 10 percent, had died.

Stationed at the al-Taji air base north of Baghdad, Private Abbas Ali Hussein was a private in an artillery unit. He and 200 others were ordered to move to the capital's western outskirts as the Americans approached. Half slipped off on the way or deserted in the first days.

On April 5 US planes attacked.

"Seven of our 18 guns were hit in one hour," Hussein says. "They were in civilian areas on the main road. The others were quickly moved under palm trees. Between seven and 10 of us were killed. Others ran. I experienced bombing as a child but had never been near anything like this. It was terrible."

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